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Northland Nature: Arrival of the goldfinches

A group of about a dozen goldfinches alight on a feeder, dining on thistle feed. Photo by Larry Weber

January was certainly was a month to remember. We started with temperatures quite a bit warmer than normal; even a record-setting 40 degrees for Jan. 4. Several other days were also in the 30s. The average for the first half was about 20 degrees — nearly 10 above the normal.

And then, we had the second half, almost as though January realized this is winter in the Northland and the temperatures plummeted. When the first half had only two days of subzero readings, the second half had only two days that stayed above zero all day. And the second half of the month dipped to an average of about 4 degrees below zero.

When we had 40 degrees early in the month, we did not expect to see 40 degrees below at many locations late in the month. Truly, it seemed like we had two different months — an overall average of 7 degrees.

Subsequently, the snowfall in the first part of the month was nearly nonexistent, but though not a lot, the second half gave us more coatings of white powder, about 8.5 inches.

I noticed quite a response at the feeding sites in my yard. During the mild days, few birds came by and it seemed as though they were telling me that they had plenty to eat elsewhere and did not need to feed here. Many times, only a couple of kinds showed up. But with the advent of the frigid temperatures, they became more consistent.

I have hosted the "same seven" for weeks. These songbirds arrive at sunrise and stoke the furnaces of their tiny bodies to stay warm all day. Lately, they came in with fluffed-up coats and a bigger appetite. These regulars — blue jay, black-capped chickadee, red-breasted nuthatch, white-breasted nuthatch and the woodpeckers (downy, hairy and red-bellied) — never seem to miss a day. The large non-songbirds, wild turkeys, are usually here, too.

What has been absent from this list of winter dining guests have been the finches.

Finches are a widely diverse group of birds that are mostly small — only about 5 inches. Though a few others could be in the region, there are usually five kinds that come to us in winter: pine grosbeak, purple finch, goldfinch, redpoll and pine siskin.

Pine grosbeaks, at 9 inches, are by far the largest of this group. I had seen many earlier in this winter and though they did remain at some Northland feeders through January, not mine. Typically, they arrive early in winter and tend to depart, by March.

Among the others, it seems like some kinds are at the feeders every winter. Usually, it is a single species that is the "finch of the season." Redpolls tend to be the most abundant, but some years, it has been any of the other finches, except for this winter.

Not until the second half of January and the more wintery conditions did I host finches. They came by sporadically at first, but eventually, a flock of a dozen were here for meals with the other birds. I added thistle seed to the diet of sunflower seeds in an attempt to get them to stay. This food and the cold conditions seemed to work; I now see goldfinches every day.

We still have weeks of winter to go. Other finches may appear, but I hope to go through late winter watching these birds of a drab, olive-green attire take on the yellow plumages like the goldfinches that we frequently see in our yards in spring and summer.

Larry Weber

Retired teacher Larry Weber, a Barnum resident, is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods,” “Webwood” and “In a Patch of Goldenrods.” Contact him c/o Katie Rohman at krohman@duluthnews.com.